I asked a Pastor of a flourishing suburban church why he thought people left church community. Pastor Ben is the regional leader for Australian Christian Churches in the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne and is committed to cultivating strong church communities where individuals are growing in their relationship with Christ, with one another and with the outer community.
It would be tempting to assume that someone like Ben, who was raised in a Christian home, would have no personal understanding of the reasons that drive an individual to withdraw from church community.
During our discussion, however, Pastor Ben made the distinction between his role as an advocate and his own personal history: ‘Rachel, I am the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ when it comes to leaving the church.’ He went on to communicate the ‘dark years’ of his own spiritual journey; a time of intense physical challenge when he was confined to a wheelchair during his youth. A post-viral condition called Guillain-barré syndrome rendered Ben unable to walk or dress himself and was the catalyst for a spiritual crisis. Unable to reconcile what he had learned as a child about the goodness and power of God with the brutal blow of physical incapacitation, Ben pushed away from church community and from a personal relationship with God.
The reasons people give for leaving church
A friend of mine, Laura, discusses her own exodus from the church. Laura grew up in a Christian home and her parents were involved in leadership in a large, outer-suburban community of believers. Laura was regularly involved with and serving in church community up until a few years ago.
‘My whole life I have believed everything I have been told about God.’ Laura says without malice, ‘but now, as an adult, I’m just not sure what I believe.’
Another friend and her husband express a painful experience they had when they were involved in church leadership; another man, a new convert, has questions about the way church services are run and matters relating to finances. Several others express displeasure for in-house church politics; leadership models and matters relating to church culture and many communicate that their exit from the church was a slow withdrawal; often unnoticed or responded to by the church community.
Asking the right questions
As we can see, the reasons that people leave church community are as varied and as multifaceted as the individuals themselves. They usually fall into one of the following categories:
- Unanswered questions or disagreement regarding leadership styles/church policies and practices
- Painful experiences that occurred within church, including social exclusions, oversights or conflicts among members and/or leadership
- Personal pain and/or hardship
- Questioning or redefining their own belief system
Statistics released by the United States Census Bureau combined with individual denominational reports and the Assemblies of God U.S missions studies confirm that 2.7 million church members fall into inactivity every year. Author, pastor and church growth consultant Dr Richard J Krejcir states, ‘from our research, we have found that they are leaving as hurting and wounded victims of some kind of abuse, disillusionment, or just plain neglect.’
Asking ‘why do people leave church?’ is an excellent question that serves to deepen our understanding of the individual circumstances surrounding people exiting our local Christian churches.
Asking, ‘how do we promote church communities that encourage, support and strengthen individuals to continue in their faith?’ is an even better question and one that each of us, whether in leadership or not, can actively seek to address.
How do we help?
The Bible helps us to understand how healthy Church bodies are to work and the responsibility that we each have to ensure that our churches stay healthy, strong and provide bracing for its members.
A leaders’ responsibility
It is evident in Scripture that there is a particular burden of responsibility placed upon Pastors and leaders in the Body of Christ. Acts 20:28 instructs church leaders to ‘pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.’ (ESV)
In 1 Peter 5:2-4 they are told to bear this responsibility ‘willingly’ and not as a ‘burden’, nor to use their authority to act as ‘lords over those entrusted to you’ and James 3:1 exhorts that those of us who teach will be judged more strictly by the Lord.
Leaders are to teach, discipline and care for the well-being of the flock with integrity, humility and sincerity.
Practically, this looks like:
- Being willing to answer questions that arise among members without defensiveness. Having our leadership questioned can be painful and/or insulting, but James 1:19 reminds us that we are to be ‘quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger’.
- Avoid polarising members who leave church community with generalised labels and reductive statements. When we as leaders speak of people ‘backsliding’, ‘taking offense’ or being ‘unteachable’ we set a church culture that turns its back on those who exit the church walls.
- Promote social inclusion within the body and ensure that there is a strong pastoral care arm within the church. Individual members are encouraged to take the initiative in caring for one another
A members’ responsibility
Likewise, members of the church are not to be spectators, critics or strangers; rather, we are invited to engage with and positively influence the culture of the church we attend. 1 Corinthians 12 paints a beautiful image of the church working like a physical body. The body is comprised of many different parts whose functions, strengths and gifts vary but whose purpose is for the common good.
So what does it look like for members to ensure that the body runs smoothly?
- Say ‘hi’ to the newcomer, welcome people into your conversations and small groups. Jesus’ goal is that His church grows: there’s no place for cliques in His body.
- Take a meal to someone going through a challenge. Ask, ‘what can I do for you?’
- Follow up a member who has been absent with genuine care and respect, rather than out of curiosity or with the intention to provide correction or unwanted advice.
- Stay connected to members who have drifted away. If our love only extends to those within our church walls, we run the risk of becoming little more than a social group.
Taking responsibility for the welfare and encouragement of others is God’s plan for the body. A wise friend recently commented that ‘if we are noticing a gap in our local church, chances are we might be there to fill it.’ As we look beyond ourselves to serve one another, the body becomes complete, living out its true purpose.
Our personal responsibility
As Pastor Ben’s statement alludes, we are all likely to be the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ at some stage in our Christian journey and we are each responsible for the choices that we make.
It is important that we:
- Ask questions: any good leader will welcome questions from their congregation. As we approach our leaders respectfully and appropriately with the concerns that we have, we give them the opportunity to address them. Sometimes our concerns might be the result of a leader’s oversight or a wrong that has been done; sometimes it is an issue that is being stirred up within us that needs addressing. Other times, we simply need someone to help us understand and grow in our faith. We can’t complain if we haven’t asked.
- Forgive and show grace to others: there are times when people hurt us. Being sure that we don’t let bitterness spring up is an important and necessary part of belonging in the church body. If the pain is great and the relationship broken, you may wish to leave the congregation: but don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater: God still desires you to be in community with other believers.
- Try again: this is possibly the most challenging thing that we have to do. Falling off the horse hurts. Forgiveness is hard. Questions may still be unanswered. Trying again means putting out trust in God once more; believing that there is a place for us to grow; to be ministered to and minister to others.
How a healthy church works
My friend Laura speaks of her own heart’s desire to see ‘a community engaging with people’, accepting where others are at and encouraging one another forward and there is no doubt that this is Christ’s intention, too. God has designed the church to be a stabilising force: encouraging, strengthening and splinting the weary, walking alongside the hurting and pointing the way for those of us who get lost at any point along the way
To see Pastor Ben preaching today, you would never guess his painful history. Ben, now thirty-five, has fully recovered from Guillain-barré syndrome and is physically fit and able-bodied. To visit him in his church is to find a well-loved, down-to-earth leader who is actively building a congregation who reach out to the community with the message of hope. Ben is not afraid to admit that unanswered questions are a part of our journey on earth, whether we are engaged in faith or not. Regardless, and quite possibly because of the challenges he has faced in his own journey, Ben is dedicated to speaking about the goodness of God and desires to see others brought into church community and into relationship with God.
Rachel Wallace and her husband, Nathan, live in Melbourne where they parent two incredible kids who challenge and delight them daily. She is currently involved in many projects, loves seeing what God does with the sky each day and aims to encourage and empower others through her writing. Find out more and follow Rachel's blog at https://www.thestillsmallvoice.online/
Pastor Ben Fagerland is the senior pastor of Activate church in Wantirna. You can find more information here: activatechurch.com
For more articles from Growing Faith, subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter.
To hear about the latest books and resources from Youthworks Media, subscribe here.